Page last updated at 07:57 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 08:57 UK

Pupils suffer 'shocking' poverty

Lesley Ward
Mrs Ward said teachers were not complacent about poverty

Many children in the UK are living in poverty akin to the times of Charles Dickens, a teachers' leader claims.

And some come to school without being toilet-trained, unable to get dressed or use a knife and fork, says Lesley Ward, new president of the ATL union.

Speaking at a reception in London, Mrs Ward said too many children did not know who the latest father figure was.

She said it was often "incredibly hard" for schools to counteract the effects of poverty in the home.

"There are perfectly healthy children who enter school not yet toilet-trained, children who cannot dress themselves, children who only know how to eat with a spoon and have never sat around a table to enjoy a home-cooked family meal, children who don't know who will be at home when they get home - if anyone, children who don't know who the father figure is in the home from month to month," she said.

Mrs Ward, a former primary school teacher from Doncaster, said that six in ten children who were classed as poor lived in families where someone worked.

"That's shocking isn't it - you go out to work, perhaps two or even three part-time jobs, and you are still living below the poverty line - life mirroring the times of Dickens."

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair set a goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020 - a goal that is likely to be missed with the latest figures available, for 2007/8, putting the number of children living in poverty at 2.9 million.

Raising aspirations

Mrs Ward said shared poverty gave rise to shared attitudes, making learning difficult.

"I am talking here about the worst type of poverty in education and that is the poverty of aspiration - attitudes like, 'Why should he stay at school? I didn't and I manage.'

"I sent a first reading book home with a little girl, who was absolutely bursting with pride, for her to share with her mum, and was told, 'It's not my job to listen to her read - it's yours.'"

Mrs Ward said it angered her when teachers were accused of being complacent about this.

"As a teacher there is nothing better than seeing your kids succeed - to see the light come on when a child in reception reads their first book, or a secondary pupil receives good A-level results.

"The best answer to better achievement is to get rid of poverty of all kinds for all children - financial, aspirational and emotional."



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